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HR Tech Europe: Technology can be a catalyst for intergenerational conflict

Your workforce is changing: what are you going to do about it? When I asked some HR leaders this question recently, I wasn’t surprised that there was no one simple answer or solution.

Rapid advances in technology and an increasingly diverse and empowered workforce have left HR departments with a tough challenge and period of change. Get it right and HR will have earned a seat at the executive table. Get it wrong and HR risks being left out of strategic business changes entirely.

One challenge is the generational gap – perceived or real. Technology can be a catalyst for intergenerational conflict. Our research into millennials reveals that many of this generation feel held back by rigid or outdating working styles.

While three-quarters of millennials believe access to technology makes them more effective at work, all generations are keen for more flexible working arrangements. Consumer technology is driving higher expectations in the workforce. And it's not just millennials – everyone's expectations are increasing. But this generation is the first to experience better technology at home than in the workplace. This has huge implications and challenges for HR.

With advances in technology come expectations of immediate access to information. Witness the success of Google. But how easy is it for one of your managers to find out how many people there are in their business unit and who has been identified as top talent? In this age of instant information, it seems shocking the number of managers who say they are denied quick access to data on people because of the technology and systems in place.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn: they're pervasive. Your workforce expects that they can collaborate, learn and share online while they're on the move. HR professionals need to ask themselves how they are helping their employees to do this but also what benefits this can bring to their organisation.

By developing crowd-sourcing platforms or internal social media platforms, organisations can harness employees’ preferences for communicating online and use this positively to create new ideas, understand what is important to them and communicate in a way that resonates with them. This will no doubt increase employee engagement and form one part of how organisations keep hold of their top talent.

We've all bought things online. It didn't take a training course or a user manual. Your workforce expects to transact processes online easily and intuitively in exactly the same way they would do outside work. But how easy is it for your manager to carry out a people-related process such as approving a spot bonus? Organisations need to look at all of their systems and ask whether employees and managers are getting what they need from them.

So how is HR responding? HR leaders have a distinctive opportunity to lead the debate on how organisations enable employees and managers to find the people information they need, allow them to collaborate and share using social tools, and provide them with easy-to-use, intuitive HR systems.

There is no doubt that all this requires investment. Given a challenging economic environment, how can HR make the case for this investment when costs are constrained and scrutinised for many companies?

Organisations that achieve this look at technology changes in the context of wider changes in their HR functions. There is a huge opportunity here if people take the chance to improve operating structures (such as combining business services with other back-office functions), make processes more efficient, and develop their strategic capability at the same time as deploying technology that meets the expectations of the workforce.

Using the latest software-as-a-service HR systems, organisations have transformed their HR functions more rapidly than ever before. They have overturned traditional models and are working in new ways that allow them to simultaneously reduce operating costs (more than 30% is often achievable), improve service delivery and increase their focus on strategy.

The future of the workplace is in HR's hands. But they will only be able to make their mark by presenting a clear vision and business case for real transformational change. When this includes the required technology infrastructure, the benefits can be compelling.

There is a threat. Those who fail to act and develop both their longer-term vision and nearer-term action plans will face increasing pressure from their business customers and the expectations of their workforce. So take a lead and don't get left behind. HR should be at the forefront of shaping employees' and managers' work experiences, and technology has a huge role to play in this future. 

Chris Murray is head of HR Technology at PwC